Palace of Desire


Warning: Contains spoilers for Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk and Palace of Desire.

It's always difficult to sum up one's reactions to the middle book in a trilogy; one's first impressions are long past, but one doesn't yet have the perspective to look back over the whole series and draw out common themes and larger narrative trends. With that limitation in mind, let me just say:

Holy sexual complexes, Batman!

Yes, my friends, those are my basic thoughts on Palace of Desire, the second installment of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. Because if there is a theme running through the pages of this novel, it's the bizarrely and consistently distorted sexual dynamics displayed by almost all its characters, most of them in some way instilled by their relationship to family patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad. Not since the middle portion of In Search of Lost Time, for example, have I read such over-the-top passages of obsessive unrequited love as Mahfouz gives us in the sections about the youngest al-Jawad sibling Kamal:

       How he wished he could see her in this role, that of a woman in love. He had never imagined it in his wildest dreams. What did the glow of passion and affection look like in her dark eyes, which cast him patronizing glances? Although fatal to his heart, it would be a vision to light up the mind with a firebrand of sacred truth justifying an eternal curse on any skeptic.
       "Your spirit flutters like a trapped bird wishing to fly free. The world is a crossroads of ruins. It would be pleasant to leave it. But even if you're certain their lips have met in a rose-red kiss, you can look forward to the pleasure of absolute freedom in the whirlpool of madness."

Well, that's good then. At least he has the whirlpool of madness to fall back on.

Such oddly purple prose brings to the fore Mahfouz's caginess as a narrator: how seriously are we supposed to take Kamal here? Is his seventeen-year-old crush being taken seriously as a madness-inducing "firebrand of sacred truth"? Or are we readers intended to laugh at him for his outsized, extremist idealism? Perhaps we're merely supposed to sigh and shake our heads at his overheatedness? Or, as Valerie suggested last month, is the stiff and overwrought quality in passages like these (and there are many of them) down to a sub-par translation job?

There were times when nearly all the characters in Palace of Desire were so entirely lacking in perspective, and so bratty and overwrought, that I had trouble taking any of them seriously as humans living in the world, much less adult humans. Kamal's seventeen years provide him with some excuse, but what of his brother Yasin, in his thirties and still getting so swept up in his sexual passions that he marries a woman with whom he knows he will soon be bored, but not until he has conducted a brief and passionate fling with her mother? Or the al-Jawad matriarch Amina, who, though she disconcerts the whole family by showing a modicum of backbone for the first time in living memory, stubbornly insists on imagining that a neighboring family is rejoicing in her son's death, and like a grumpy fourth-grader forbids any of her children from having any further association with them? And all this is not to mention Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself, whose pathetic late-life infatuation with a lute player is overcome only by his social snobbery. The extremism and perversity of the characters' sexual obsessions reminded me, as I mentioned, of In Search of Lost Time, but without Proust's humor and patient explication of mental processes I was often at a loss to interpret the author's own attitude toward his over-the-top characters.

Yet, at other times, it seems Mahfouz is doing something deliberate with all this epic drama. Kamal himself, toward the end of the novel, comes to a tentative realization that he has been conditioned by his father's authoritarianism to seek out oppressive relationships in the rest of his life (note that despite the quotation marks Kamal is not actually saying this aloud, but only thinking it to himself):

"Do you know what other consequences there were to loving you despite your tyranny? I loved another tyrant who was unfair to me for a long time, both to my face and behind my back. She oppressed me without ever loving me. In spite of all that, I worshipped her from the depths of my heart and still do. You're as responsible for my love and torment as anyone else. I wonder if there's any truth to this idea. I'm not satisfied with it or overly enthusiastic about it. [...] In any case, Father, you're the one who made it easy for me to accept oppression through your continual tyranny."

It's true that everyone in the al-Jawad household has been accustomed to the role of either a perpetual child, or a tyrant, or a tyrant-to-be. And it's understandable that this would have a warping effect on their ability to grow into rational, well-adjusted adults. Khadija, one of the al-Jawad daughters, suffers so from the lack of an authoritarian father figure in her married life, that she herself becomes a brat and a harpy, picking fights with her mother-in-law and screeching at her husband that he will never compare to her father. As for the eldest son Yasin, having only his father as a model means that he has never learned to walk a middle ground between total repression and complete bacchanalian self-indulgence. Amina, too, has learned no communication style other than extreme passive-aggression, and is unable to confront her neighbors or her philandering husband, or even her lingering grief over her son's death.

And indeed, Mahfouz's strange technique of presenting a character's silent thoughts in quotation marks as if the character were speaking aloud, followed by their actual speech, also in quotation marks, reinforces this unstable boundary between the inexpressible internal life and the external façade (a façade which, often as not, fools no one). The need for that barrier between the spoken and the silent worlds, and the lack of honest exchange among family members and others, would go some distance towards explaining the over-dramatic terms in which they narrate their own lives. (Not to mention their need for an external release valve, be it alcohol, whoring, or petty squabbling.)

So too, Mahfouz explores the brittleness, the fragility that results from Al-Sayyid Ahmad's authoritarianism. For the patriarch himself, the tremendous amount of effort needed to keep up both his public life of jovial debauchery and his private life of stern respectability, becomes too much to maintain as he gets older. For his son Kamal, who has taken his father's impossibly high religious and ethical standards to heart as Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself never did, it means a zealous religious faith that nonetheless crumbles at his first exposure to the world of science; a literalist conception of "truth" that leaves no margin for compromise or metaphor. And yet nothing in Kamal's mindset has really changed: he flees to science expecting it to provide him with the same kind of absolutist dictates that religion has failed to do; he is still hoping to find another tyrant he can agree both to love and respect.

I can think of no better way to sum up than with a double dactyl:


Flibberty gibbert the
Al-Jawad family's
Tyrannous father trains
Children and wives

Not to remark when his
Drunken compulsions wreck
all of their lives.


Palace of Desire was the second installment in the Cairo Trilogy Readalong; thanks to Richard for organizing!


  • What a great review! It made me not want to read the book, although the review was so good I read it twice through!

  • Wow. Brilliant, Emily. This review captures so much of what I felt about the book but was too lazy to really examine. I must improve on this in the future. I thought Kamal's journey was the most believable thread in the book. While I wasn't overly impressed by his romantic inclinations, his intellectual development was interesting, and how he began to see his relationship with his father was doubly so. What you said about him trying to replace one tyrant with another is fascinating. Some of Mahfouz's narrative quirks, like the double conversations, are quite effective I thought, even if (like his overall style) they make it harder to dig out what his real intentions are. I was reminded of Proust too, but Mahfouz definitely lacks a certain spark. I'm finding the trilogy a bit more tedious than I had hoped, but I'm still interested in seeing where it's going.

    • Thanks, Sarah! Yes, I found Kamal the most believable as well - he acted just as puerile as all the other characters, but it was more understandable given that he actually WAS a love-struck adolescent. And I found the fragility and extremism of his beliefs easy to understand given his training - found that final (partial) epiphany of his pretty satisfying. Can't say I loved the visceral experience of reading his overdramatic lovesick mooning, but it did strike me as believably teenaged. :-) And I also agree that the double conversations are an interesting, and often effective, touch.

  • Love what you say about Mahfouz's possible caginess as Master of Ceremonies and the thoughts-in-quotation marks technique, Emily. Like Sarah, I also enjoyed moments of Kamal's journey--esp. the lovesick ones, which I think were full of emotional truth. Other moments were way less successful, though, and it seems like Mahfouz is almost always in danger of skirting the precipice of writing a bad novel with one more slip-up. What a weird--but entertaining enough for the most part--novel this is turning out to be!

    • Yes, definitely odd and entertaining! I have a fairly low tolerance for the type of lovesickness Kamal suffered from (the kind where the lover "elevates" the beloved to the status of some kind of god or goddess, which to me is actually pretty insulting to said beloved), but I certainly believed that given his character and training, he would be prone to that kind of love rather than a more respectful, partnership-of-equals style model. And thought his choice of Aida was an interesting continuation of his romanticization of the West that we start to see in Palace Walk.

      • Emily, I should clarify that I was moved by the broken-heart Kamal passages AFTER Aïda chose the rival rather than the mooning stuff you mention in the passages before that (those didn't really work for me either). I think one strand of the elevation of the lover trope dates back to classical Arabic poetry, though, and was at one time thought to be the basis for Occitan troubadour poetry before spreading to people like your buddy Petrarch. This might explain Mahfouz's interest in it. I'm kind of rusty on this topic, though, so feel free to ignore me sans any hesitation whatsoever!

        • Ah, I see - yes, I found him marginally less annoying after his rejection, as well. Interesting points about possible ties to classical Arabic poetry etc. - I do feel as if Mahfouz is working in a tradition and it's one with which I'm not familiar, which probably means I'm losing context and nuance.

  • Your discussion here is excellent, Emily. Your poem is good, too :-).

    I noticed that Mahfouz is perhaps sympathetic towards the character of Kamal. In the first installment, Kamal is a little boy wondering about male/female roles. In this one, Kamal falls in love (or, as has been pointed out, possibly in love withthe idea of being in love), which seems to put him above his father and brother.

    As for Khadijah, she was sharp-tongued in the first book as well -- I would have really liked to see more character development for her and the other female characters.

    I just read that Mahfouz himself didn't marry until he was 43. Doing the math, he would have been married for about 5 years when this trilogy was published, so maybe he didn't yet have a fully-developed idea of married life or the lives of women.

    • Thanks for the nice words, Valerie!

      Yes, I think you're right about Mahfouz perhaps identifying with Kamal. Interesting that he himself married so late - I wonder if he followed the overly licentious or overly studious al-Jawad model (or, hopefully, steered some middle ground between the two). Re: Khadijah, yes she was always sharp-tongued, but in the first book there was an understanding among the family members that she had their collective back and was very loyal to the family as a whole, so it seemed less like a serious problem. When she moves, that element of understanding doesn't exist in her new family, so feelings get genuinely hurt. It was just one example of the al-Jawad inability to alter as it alteration finds, I guess.

  • Expanding on Valerie's comment on the connection between Kamal and Mahfouz, I think I read somewhere that Mahfouz based part of Kamal's experiences on his own and they both take similar paths of education, philosophy rather than the more "practical" paths of law or civil service.

    Your comparison to Proust is worrisome, because I'm about to start Swann's Way, and I don't know if I can take much more unrequited love whining at this point!

    • Shannyn, don't let my comparison turn you off of Proust! He's one of my favorite writers of all time, despite the occasional 100 pages of lovesick whining, and let me tell you it takes a lot to overcome that in my mind. In my opinion FAR more insightful and beautiful than the Cairo trilogy thus far, and also MUCH funnier! I feel he's more explicitly poking (loving) fun at his lovesick characters - at all humanity, really, saying "Isn't it odd we're so perverse?"

  • Obssesive like Proust, huh? That's saying something! It soundds like quite a soap opera. I can't wait to hear about the final book.

  • Excellent insights here. I found Kamal and Yavin to be flip sides of the same coin when it came to women - like neither of them was ever taught how to interact with women so they have to either idealize them as literally non-human or treat them like contemptible sex objects. Kamal's constant obsessing alone could have cut the book down by about fifty pages if removed. The whole book was just way too long.

    I hope a lot more than drama happens in Sugar Street. I would like to see more of Egypt's political situation and get a better sense of time and place.

    • YES, completely agree re: Yasin & Kamal being flip sides of the same issue, i.e., that they were both socialized to think of women as something other than just another human being like themselves. And I second your hopes for Sugar Street. We shall see...

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
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